John Lewis On Martin Luther King Jr.
Next week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important civil rights events in U.S. history: the 1963 March on Washington. A quarter of a million people came to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his iconic “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Georgia Congressman John Lewis was also there. He’s 73 years old today. But then, he was just 23 years old, the youngest speaker at the massive rally. You’ll be hearing a lot about the March over the coming days, but we thought we’d share this wonderful story Lewis told us when he recently visited the Kennedy Presidential Library in Dorchester. It’s the story of how Lewis first met King after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
John Lewis, U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district.
Rep. John Lewis: I grew up as a young child in rural Alabama about 50 miles from Montgomery. I heard his voice on an old radio. I was 15 years old in the 10th grade. I’d heard about the Montgomery bus boycott; I’d heard about Rosa Parks. And it seemed like Dr. King was speaking directly to me, saying, “John Lewis, you too can do something. You too can make a contribution.” And I wanted to meet this man. I wanted to meet him.
So, two years later when I finished high school, I applied to enter a little college 10 miles from my home, called Troy State College. It is now known as Troy University. I submitted my application, my high school transcript, and I never heard a word from the school — it didn’t admit black students. So I wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and told him I needed his help. I didn’t tell any of my teachers; I didn’t tell my mother, my father, any of my sisters or brothers. Dr. King wrote me back and sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him.
In the meantime, I had been accepted to another college in Nashville, Tenn. So I went off to school there, and one of my teachers, one of my professors who had studied with Dr. King in Atlanta, I told him about it. He informed Dr. King that I was in school there. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got back in touch and stated that when I was home for spring break to come and see him.
So in March of 1958 — by this time I’m 18 years old — my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station. I boarded the bus and traveled 50 miles from Troy to Montgomery. And a young lawyer — young, African American lawyer (I’ve never seen a lawyer before) — the lawyer for Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the Montgomery movement met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church, downtown Montgomery, Pastor Ralph Abernathy, a colleague of Dr. King. The church had been bombed during the bus boycott. [The lawyer] ushered me into the pastor’s study, the office of the church.
I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk. I was so afraid; I didn’t know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King spoke up and said, “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?” And I said, “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.” So from that day on, he started calling me “the boy from Troy.”
I love this man. He inspired me. He was my inspiration. He was my hero. He was my big brother. If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what would have happened to me or what would have happened to America.
Other stories from this show:
WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.
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